Critique of Panelism

By Geert Lovink

InterSociety for Electronic Arts Conference, Helsinki, August 2004.

(instead of a report I decided to write something about the ‘panel’ as the dominant form of conferences. I have to say that instead of taking the boat from Stockholm and spending a few days in Talinn, I only visited the conference part in Helsinki. /geert)

People love events. They can’t get enough of all the offline events on offer. Like festivals, conferences are venues where you can meet future collaborators, debate ideas and artworks, party intensely, get inspired, provoked, learn, make new friends, and then occasionally carry on the dialogue in the sauna. These days, the event industry is an integral part of the shopping-driven locative spectacle. Conferences are also an opportunity for people who can’t meet otherwise, to spend a few days together away from their obligations, zooming in on ideas. Whereas, socially speaking, conferences may be exciting, most events use conventional, unreflected formats. Beyond good or evil, conferences are here to stay, so they better be good.

For a moment let’s not focus on what people like or do not like. We were always looking for conferences free of keynote speeches and panels. It’s a relief to see speakers argue freely, be brief – leaving ample time for questions from the audience, and focus on the points raised by the chair of a session. Formats and the vocabulary used lock us not only into structures but also impact the way we develop content. In the age of the Internet ‘rhetoric’, we can feel free to move on, away from reading a ‘paper’ to more distributed and collaborative forms of discourse production, discussion and dispute. The ritualized academic structure of panels and the non-communicative form of the keynote speaker feed into the celebrity system reinforcing hegemonic paradigms that get in the way of genuine dialogue and of diverse, emerging voices being heard. Some will read this criticism as an attack on the scientific community as a whole. We disagree. Academics are not a species in danger of extinction and it is time to get out of the defensive mode. Panelism is part of the dark side of ‘academism’ and needs to be addressed, exactly because it is spilling over to other contexts such as the arts, culture, new media and even activism.

A good example of well meant but misplaced panelism would be the Intersociety for Electronic Arts (ISEA) bi-annual conference, an event in which artists have to participate in scientific formats in order to contribute. In part this is an effect of the forced ‘edufication’ of the arts, particularly in the United States, but increasingly also in countries such as Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom. Within the American ‘university of excellence’ language and research formats in the arts are modeled increasingly after the business logic of the sciences. People who decide about grants in turn are looking at the military-industrial complex that feeds them to an ever-growing extent. The possibility of failure, even in the sciences becomes almost impossible due to this all-powerful result imperative of the funding. Instead of addressing this topic directly, a culture of academic simulation is being introduced in which a wide range, from designers, programmers and activists to net artists are persuaded to respond to ‘call for papers,’ motivate each other to submit a ‘proposal for a panel’ and even have to buy into the dirty business of (blind) peer reviewing, enforcing lengthy citations, in order to get something ‘published’ on a website.

Increasingly, dull formats of the sciences are imposed on the arts. Mind you, these are mostly unnecessary, ‘alien’ formats that no one would come up with on their own. There is by no means a ‘natural’ desire amongst artists to sit in panels and write ‘papers.’ In fact, these formats are despised– but nonetheless hard to resist. We do not suggest that artists cannot speak for themselves or should not be involved in practices embracing theory and production, or arts and sciences. But we do question the forced adaptation of scientific formats and argue that it is high time to start public awareness, openly talk about it and label the occurring tendency by its proper names: paperism and panelism.

What’s so bad about three or four people, each sitting on their individual hobby horses, introduced by an ill-informed chair of the session far distant from the divulged audience? The fact that the panelists do not know each other and have not seen let alone read each other’s ‘papers’? The fact that there was hardly time for questions? Who cares? Exactly. Who cares? We do. We, the audience, are those who care. We have to say no to the supermarket mentality in which both audience and presenters are merely shopping around, not showing up on panels, are clearly programmed in the wrong section of the program or have no ability, or even wish, to addressing the handful of people in the hall in a clear manner.

The source of ‘panelism’ has to be located at conference organizers, not speakers, let alone the audience. What panelism expresses is laziness and a lack of creative thinking as to which format in what (discursive) situation will work best. Panelism is often an indication that too many people have been involved in the decision making process. The panel structure is the flipside of justified attempts to be more inclusive and have as many speakers as possible. But that doesn’t always result into interesting events. The best conferences are being produced by a small team of both researchers and producers that closely collaborate. Events curated by one individual, such as Ars Electronica, have the tendency to become narrow and repetitive and develop an informal circuit of guessing and gossiping around the intentions of this one person, much like Documenta and the biennial system with its small circle of circulating curators.

The worst panels are those when speakers really have no clue why they are in the same session. Or take this situation: a competitive, slightly irritated atmosphere arises when the first speaker goes over her time limit, then the second as well, leaving no time for the last one. A variation of this would be the case in which the last speaker ‘eats up’ all the remaining time for questions. Another general pattern is the fact that the last speaker gets most of the questions as the audience has forgotten what the previous panelists had to say. These problems can only partially be solved by a good moderator. Or take the issue of absenteism: at the AOiR conference in Sussex (September 2004) dozens of speakers, whose names showed up in the final program, did not even bother to show up.

The key issue here is not the all too human qualities of certain subjects but the deep liberal, unfocused approach in which the topics might, at best, be described as a cloud of question marks. The audience in response develops a liberal, ‘surfing’ attitude towards the ‘collage’ of information that is presented, a mechanism so precisely described by Marshall McLuhan. There is no compelling reason why panel members would have to discuss with each other. Usually they have been introduced minutes before they start and can barely remember each other’s name. And while all this happens the audience sits as a silent block in the dark.

Maybe I missed something and only have been at events where there was nothing at stake. Perhaps there is a universal human right to present one’s paper in public. We are being told that in this democratic idea science should be seen as a bazaar full of mediocre but necessary products in which it is up to diehards to find the precious gems. Noise to signal ratios are varying greatly and one has to learn to filter in order to get through. Keynote speakers do not make up for tragedy of panelism. They only mirror the problem and try to compensate for the middle of the road methodology that creates artificial celebrity. Reputation does not exist, it has to be made, and the keynote system is an ideal vehicle to do so.

(in collaboration with Trebor Scholz)